Merina’s skin felt like my clear gel keyboard wrist rest – cool, sleek and smooth. When she shook my hand with her fin and gazed into my eyes with her friendly smile, I melted right there on the docks of the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys.
Some say a dolphin feels slick like wet rubber, others say it feels smooth like a peeled hard-boiled egg. But what’s most impressive is the way you feel when you touch, interact with or even see a dolphin. It’s hard to do it justice with words, but “jubilant” and “awed” are common reactions.
Except for the gator, few animals are more associated with Florida than the dolphin. It would be hard to imagine a place where there were so many dolphin, and so many ways to interact with them, either in aquariums or in the sea.
Here are 20 of the best ways to swim and play with dolphins. (Note: Some dolphin encounters have age restrictions, so check ahead before you make family plans.)
1. Key West: Fury Water Adventures
Meet dolphin in their native habitat: wild and free in Key West’s back country. On the tour, knowledgeable guides dole out fun facts about dolphin lifestyles as you watch them frolic in the boat’s wake. The tour also includes a chance to snorkel the Keys’ famous coral reefs.
2. Key West: Dancing Dolphin Spirit Charters
Be the dolphin on Capt. Victoria’s Dolphin Day for Humans charter. Specializing in “children of all ages,” the wilderness boat tour includes a snorkel tow on a “dolphin water massage board.” Wild dolphin often join “human dolphin” on their voyage into dolphinity.
3. Islamorada: Theater of the Sea
One of the highlights to this all-day Islamorada dolphin destination is a short boat ride on a “bottomless boat,” where dolphin perform in the open water at the boat’s center while passengers applaud from seats around the arena. Besides watching dolphin behavior, swimming with dolphin and a snorkeling cruise into dolphin habitat, the 62-year-old facility offers sea lion experiences, a beach, snorkeling with tropical fish and gardens filled with parrots, sea turtles and other native and exotic creatures.
4. Marathon: Dolphin Research Center
Paint with a dolphin? DRC in Marathon adds an artistic twist to the dolphin experience. Participants collaborate with one of its 22 dolphins – some of them descendants of the 1963 Flipper movie cast – to create a colorfully abstract T-shirt that the dolphin decorates with water-based paints and a paintbrush it holds in its mouth. This and other encounter programs help the facility cognition and behavior, provide programs to military personnel and their families, work with people with special needs, and develop top educational programs for students of all ages.
5. Marathon: Hawks Cay Resort
Stay where dolphin live at this seaside resort. The Dolphin Connection has designed programs for kids and adults to interact with a pod of friendly bottlenose dolphins in the resort’s ocean fed lagoon. Whether you choose to jump in the water for a hands-on dolphin encounter, learn how to train dolphins or stand on the dock and admire fantastic aerial tricks, Dolphin Connection can tailor a specific program to meet your needs either individually or in a group setting.
6. Key Largo: Island Dolphin Care
No child is left out from the dolphin experience in Key Largo, and this place makes sure. It was developed specifically so kids with special needs could undergo the healing pleasure of a dolphin’s company. Programs range from half-day meet-and-greets to five-day “Dolphin Time-Outs.”
7. Key Largo: Dolphin Cove
Tiny tots can enjoy this dolphin experience. Participants ages 3 years and up and at least 4-feet-6-inches tall can participate on their own (if they do not meet the height requirement, they must have a participating adult to hold them in the water). The Shallow Water Dolphin Encounter is a waist-deep dolphin interaction program where you can meet the dolphins up close and personal, while standing comfortably in waist deep water. You can experience interactive behaviors like body rubs, handshakes or kisses. All interaction is guided by a dolphin trainer, and one-on-one contact is guaranteed.
8. Miami: Miami Seaquarium
Here at the home of TV’s “Flipper” and erstwhile filming site for the show, you can make like Sandy and Bud and befriend a dolphin in either the Dolphin Encounter or the Dolphin Odyssey. Both are group experiences, last two hours and are prefaced with a learning experience. Don’t miss the Flipper Dolphin Show at this 50-plus-year-old classic Miami attraction.
9. Southeast Florida: Dolphin World
If you’re in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Key West or West Palm Beach and are looking for an easy, no-fuss dolphin adventure, book with this tour company, which specializes in dolphin excursions. Leave the driving and arrangements to Dolphin World. Your only worry: How to smile bigger than a dolphin in the photos that can be purchased at the end.
10. Everglades City: Everglades Area Tours
When it comes to getting close to wild dolphin, kayaking is the way to go. Everglades Area Tours makes quick work of getting you out into the raw nature of the Everglades by combining the use of horsepower and manpower. A mother boat transports participants to prime spots where they can paddle with the tides and currents back to point A. Along the way, a naturalist informs as birds, fish, manatees and dolphin put on a show. Trips can be customized for camping on deserted beaches, fishing or whatever your family pleases.
11. Fort Myers Beach: GAEA Guides
Estero Bay, the section of Intracoastal Waterway that separates Fort Myers Beach from the mainland, is known for its wild dolphin population. Chances are nearly 100 percent that a foray into the sheltered waters, part of the 100-mile Great Calusa Blueway paddling trail, will reward with a dolphin sighting. Connie Langmann, owner of GAEA Guides, takes kayakers – first-time or experienced – into these dolphinated estuary waters for an intimate paddle among the resident pod.
12. Fort Pierce: Florida Dolphin Watch
The East Coast’s Indian River is home to hundreds of dolphin that seek the shelter of the Intracoastal Waterway to feed and breed. This two-hour trip out of Fort Pierce is limited to six people for a leisurely, educational experience entertained by dolphin 90 percent of the time. Longer customized tours are available and can include lunch on a deserted island.
13. Tampa: The Florida Aquarium’s Wild Dolphin EcoTour
Tampa Bay boasts more than 400 dolphin, and Tampa’s Florida Aquarium takes you to where they and hundreds of birds live. Board a comfortable 72-foot catamaran for an hour-and-a-half narrated excursion.
14. Orlando: SeaWorld Adventure Park
It starts with engaging shows where you get all wet if you’re sitting in the Splash Zone. From there, experiences with dolphin grow more intimate by the minute. Visit the Dolphin Nursery to learn how mom and calf interact. Sign up for the Dolphin Up-Close Tour, a walking tour experience they’ll be immediately texting their friends back home about. At SeaWorld’s waterpark, Aquatica, two awesome, enclosed tube slides send you speeding through a lively lagoon filled with playful, black-and-white Commerson’s dolphin.
15. Orlando: Discovery Cove
Want dolphin all to yourself? For a more exclusive interface, reserve your day across the street from SeaWorld at Discovery Cove. At this private, all-inclusive day resort, a limited number of people are admitted per day to play on the beach and snorkel in the fish-filled waterways. Guests are divided into small groups to swim with the dolphin for 30 minutes after a 10-minute conservation-minded orientation. During the swim, participants get their picture taken kissing a dolphin and score a fin-tow. This resort also gives guests the opportunity to swim with dolphins, rays, tropical fish and hand-feed exotic birds as well as participate in trainer-for-a-day programs.
16. Orlando: Florida Dolphin Tours
You’re in Orlando, but you’re craving a quick dolphin getaway to the Keys. These are the people to see for a two-day dolphin side-trip that includes round-trip transportation, accommodations, a two-hour one-on-one dolphin program, an airboat ride through the Everglades and shopping in Miami's Bayside District. If you’d rather snorkel with dolphin in the open, the tour operators can get you there.
17. Space Coast: Kayak tours
Adventure Kayak of Cocoa Beach, A Day Away Kayaking Tours and the Brevard Zoo all lead paddling excursions into the dolphin-full waters of the Space Coast’s Indian River and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The ever-curious dolphin often come so close you can touch them.
18. Flagler County: Marineland Dolphin Adventure
Marineland Dolphin Adventure is the world’s first oceanarium. Packed with history, the site opened in 1938 as Marine Studios, an underwater filming location for motion pictures. A modernized and updated park is now focused on meaningful animal interactions, and offers multiple programs that immerse guests in the world of dolphins. Simply observe their grace and beauty in their 1.3-million-gallon habitat, or interact with them in the water. Your encounter can last anywhere from three minutes to several days. Programs and kids’ day camps target every age group, and weddings and other event bookings are also available.
19. Destin: Glass Bottom Boat Dolphin Cruise
Climb aboard the Destin-based, 80-foot Southern Star and prepare to do a lot of swivel-necking. Dolphin love jumping in the boat’s wake, but you never know where exactly they’ll surface next. You can sometimes catch them in their most playful mode, when the males are showing off for the females or tossing fish to mates. It’s better than a trained dolphin show because it’s spontaneous and unpredictable. You can bring your camera, but it often seems they’re laughing at your attempts to capture them. Kids especially love the ride because besides being able to see dolphin above and below the water, they get to drive the boat.
20. Panama City Beach: Gulf World Marine Park
Once you’ve seen its daily Dolphin Show, you’ll be hooked and ready to jump right in with these beauties. You’re in luck because in Panama City Beach, Gulf World offers various programs such as Trainer For a Day, Dolphin Day Camp, Meet and Greet, Snooze with Sea Life and Swim with the Dolphins, where you can see, swim and kiss the dolphins.